Remember that infamous photo of Tek and A-Rod in full grapple? Last year ’round this time, you couldn’t avoid it. It was in the papers. On T-shirts. Kids were having it emblazoned on their birthday cakes. Mitt Romney had it tattooed on the backs of one of his aides so that he could stare at its majesty all day long. Stephen King and Stewart O’Nan slapped it on the cover of their best-selling book, Faithful.

The reason for its popularity? Well, it’s fun to look at. But more importantly, that photo became the goddam mission statement of the 2004 Red Sox. It came at a time when the entire Nation was scratching its collective head, watching a team of overpaid underachievers that seemed quite content to suckle the teat of mediocrity. Then came the brawl. And Bill Mueller’s walk-off home run. And at the end of the game, slumped in our La-Z-Boys with a cigarette in each hand and pants rolled up in a heap in the corner of the room [er, at least in my house], we were emotionally and physically exhausted. But we agreed that it was the single biggest game of the season. And, in retrospect, we can see that it did truly constitute a turning point for the season, as well as the team.

Last night’s victory over the Rays was every bit as harrowing. The type of game you didn’t want to lose. The type of game we really couldn’t lose, what with the ace of the 2005 staff, Matt Clement, felled by a shot off Carl Crawford’s bat and carried away in a stretcher. That’s when it’s time to grab yourself by the twig and berries and sound off Matt Dillon style, shouting “Do it for Matty, man” and going about the business of getting shit done.

And they did. Transforming what looked to be a certain loss into an uplifting victory.

Seriously, when Manny struck out to kick off the ninth, could you have predicted the dramatics to follow? Myself, I was already thumbing through the Eddie Bauer catalog, using a pen to circle the female models I’d most like to bone and thinking about that sandwich I’d left in the fridge. But then Tek sends one screaming out of the yard, and we’re down by one. Then Millar — that’s Mr. 3-for-4 to you — drops one in for a hit. As does the Magic Helmet. Then Mueller lets fly a double down the right field line. And suddenly it’s all tied up. And I’m kicking and screaming like it’s 2004.

In the tenth, we grab the lead, and despite more shaky-shaky from Mr. Schilling, we hold on to win. And as the team falls out on the field, and the Sox-loving crowd in the stands goes nuts, I imagine The Emanicipator, sitting in a bed in a Tampa Bay hospital, raising a thumb for his boys. [Thankfully, CT-scans on Clement were negative.]

Where do we go from here? Only God and Peter Gammons know for sure. But after last night, I think getting there’s gonna be pretty f–king cool.